Today
Wed 22 September 2021

As the grouse shooting seasons gets underway, Stuart Spray reports on the negative impacts that driven grouse moors have on biodiversity and climate change

Today is the Glorious Twelfth, a day celebrated in certain circles as the start of the grouse shooting season.

Over the next four months, groups of wealthy shooters will travel to upland heather moorlands in northern England and Scotland, each paying between £1,500 and £2,000 a day for the privilege.

In order to maintain high numbers of red grouse for shooting, the moors are intensively managed involving practices that research suggests have a negative impact on biodiversity and the climate. This has led to calls from campaigners and conservation groups for the Government to do more to hold the shooting industry to account. 

Moorland managers operate what has been described by conservationists as a “scorched earth policy” towards predators and legally control vast numbers of foxes, crows, rats, stoats, weasels and feral cats. Some shooting estates have also become black spots for the illegal killing of protected birds of prey, also known as raptors.

One of the most persecuted birds of prey is the hen harrier. The iconic bird, nicknamed the ‘sky dancer’ due to its acrobatic courtship displays, nests on heather moorlands where it comes into conflict with gamekeepers due to its preferred diet of red grouse.

Experts point to its ongoing illegal persecution as the reason why there are fewer than 700 breeding pairs of hen harriers in the UK. In England, according to  The Wildlife Trusts’ website, they are being driven to the brink of extinction, with just 24 confirmed nesting attempts in 2020 in a habitat that could accommodate up to 300.

Although this is a marked improvement compared with 2013, when the two remaining English pairs failed to breed at all, research commissioned by the Government in 2019 concluded that hen harriers are still 10 times more likely to die or disappear in mysterious circumstances around grouse moors than any other habitat in England.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit was set up by the Labour Government in 2006 to assist with the prevention and detection of wildlife crime. After narrowly avoiding being closed down by the Conservative Government in 2016, the team has operated on an annual budget of less than £300,000 for the past five years.

Natural England is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) but works independently of the Government. It has a range of statutory duties that include monitoring and protecting England’s most valuable habitats; halting biodiversity loss; and advising the Government on environmental policy, planning and licensing.

Natural England’s director for wildlife licensing and enforcement, Dave Slater, told Byline Times: “We are committed to tackling the illegal persecution of wildlife. Raptor persecution is a national wildlife crime priority and, for species such as the hen harrier, illegal persecution on land managed for grouse shooting remains the main threat to their recovery.”

He added that Natural England had recently agreed to second a senior member of staff to the National Wildlife Crime Unit to identify improvements in how to prevent, identify, and take effective enforcement action in relation to, raptor persecution incidents. The new role will boost the team specialising to wildlife crime in the UK to nine.

Dr Mark Avery, a former director of conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and author of Inglorious – Conflict in the Uplands, highlights the contrast between the Scottish and Westminster Governments on wildlife crime.

“Scottish ministers have been vocal and active on the subject higher fines, vicarious liability, bigger sanctions and now the commitment to license grouse shooting, the source of much illegal persecution of golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrine falcons,” he said. “But the Westminster Government refuses to acknowledge there is a problem and doesn’t act. It’s as though DEFRA is scared of the shooting community or is it because these are their mates?

“Labour has committed to introduce licensing of grouse shooting were it to form the Government in England. There is clearly a deep political divide on this issue, with the Conservatives sitting idly by in the face of criminality and the left of politics being much more active. Whatever happened to the party of law and order?”

Charlie Moores, a wildlife campaigner and coordinator of The War of Wildlife Project, believes that the obvious factor to explain the lack of action is that big estates are owned by establishment figures and so there is “many a blind eye being turned”.

“Part of the problem is the law, especially the evidence bar being set so high, that makes prosecution almost impossible,” he told Byline Times. “I’ve always got the impression from people working on the ground that gamekeepers have felt invulnerable anyway, protected by lobbyist groups.

“But there is no doubt that things are changing. The story is shifting more and more towards the potential for moorlands to store carbon or to work as investments for businesses to move towards carbon net zero. I am becoming convinced that industry and climate change will bring down grouse shooting.”

Recent research by the University of Leeds concluded that burning grouse moors – to create a mosaic of nutritious young shoots for the grouse to eat – degrades peatland habitat, releases greenhouse gases, reduces biodiversity, and increases the risk of flooding. Last January, The Committee on Climate Change – the independent, statutory body established to advise the Government on building a low-carbon economy – produced a report recommending a complete ban on the burning of grouse moors.

Max Wiszniewski, campaign manager for Revive, the coalition for grouse moor reform in Scotland, agrees with Moores.

“In the year Scotland hosts COP26, the grouse shooting lobby still wish to keep huge swathes of the country in an impoverished state that contributes to climate change,” he said. “Grouse moors, burned and unburned, are less diverse, are less biologically productive and provide fewer ecosystem services than the woodlands, scrub and peat-forming bogs that could replace them – if given the chance.

“A widescale transition away from driven grouse shooting – the most intensive form of the ‘sport’ – towards multiple sustainable land uses would make a real contribution to tackling the climate emergency and our catastrophic loss of biodiversity.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Byline Times that the Government has no plans to conduct a review of the management of grouse moors in England.

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